Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Jelle Cauwenberghs

Jelle Cauwenberghs | 27th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Jelle Cauwenberghs:

It’s a white winter morning in Glasgow. The trees in the park are black plum. Dogs run by with muddy paws and shock the pond full of ghostly gulls. Sylvia Plath wrote that winter trees stand ‘waist-deep in history’, or the winds ‘they taste’ do – and I am reminded of the wind in the leaves in The Wild Pear Tree, the beautiful film I went to see last week in which a young woman shelters beneath a tree – a sycamore, I believe, but correct me – and tells the young writer whose peregrinations we follow throughout the film that she doesn’t remember when her heart last said anything. At that moment, the leaves rustle in a sudden gust, and there is the ‘footless’ wind of the poem that can do things to us that we cannot allow ourselves to feel – a pulse of freedom and a dreamed-of courage beyond the scope of immediate action or perception. A tenderness, too. And is that not the beautiful osmosis we aim for in poetry; when the words themselves go deep in the night and find the stumbled horse rising to its knees because it is still breathing in the bleary dawn even though its entrails are blue and the rider is dead. Communication is ebb and flow, assonance and alliteration; wrack, wreck and work. Poetry is failure and often we plagiarize, it seems; I’m just awkardly slapping the water with one oar, hoping to move this creaking dolly. Many hands are prodding the hull – I’ll need their tongues to tell me how it ends. But no glum sermon. Earlier this autumn, I revisited The Wanderer, that old Anglo-Saxon poem about exile and consolation. The following lines in the translation by Michael Alexander resonated so much with me I copied them and pinned them to the wall of my small bedroom in the mildewed flat I share with strangers:

Alone am I driven each day before daybreak 

to give my cares utterance.

None are there now among the living 

to whom I dare declare me thoroughly, 

tell my heart’s thought…

This year I’ve tried to be someone who can tell his heart’s thought, and who can listen to the wind when all else has failed. A caress. I’ve held a crying man and stroked his hair until he went to sleep, because he could not go home, and this would always be his ‘otherworldiness’; where he felt shunned and drawn into a shadow. We were drunk and it was late. Outside – nightfall, first frost. The moment opened a chasm and in that frightening lurch we had to find each other and speak.

I’m reading Auden this morning and there is that stanza in his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”: ‘In the nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark, / And the living nations wait, / Each sequestered in its hate …’ I gaze outside at the wet trees and hope the sound will die away until all that is left is the wind; but then I want that mute, brooding hate to go away, too, and perhaps what I want is a gentle white morning to give me a poem that can bind us together.

There is consolation to be found in words, the haze of summer wheat, a stone’s throw away, rubbing shoulders – but a pastoral idyll can conceal a field of bones. The work of literature is almost forensic; it illuminates where things have badly scarred, where remembrance has faltered and embellished the ugly.

Of all the books I read this year, Sebald’s The Emigrants was that reminder of the precision and patience that is required when one enters a haunted hall; the open air in which the dead speak, the ancient stones.

Even the flowers are soaked in their ghoulish dew. I seek the reassurance of the seasons in spite of everything, but the vanishing is real. Jaquetta Hawkes sums it up beautifully, when she writes, in A Land, “It was spring when I began to write and now September has put cool fingers and a few leaves into the air. While I have written, the sea has swallowed a gobbet of land in one place, released a few square yards in another; there have been losses and gains in the flow of consciousness.”

That is the lump sum. Words can stem the flow, but what does that mean; a poulice made of known things muddled together; talismanic milk teeth in a drawer – will they keep us safe? I avoid certain words like malnourished polar bears – malignant snags that have surfaced in the news; I want to throw white sheets over them and leave them in the attic, like ghosts. But this is a ghost story; it’s the story of how we are ghosting the planet, our land, ourselves, each other.

Some politicians are ghosts, they have never quite mastered the language of the living; they’ve never had mud in their mouths. I have a chunk of white chalk somewhere that I picked up near the ferry port in Dover, twenty years ago, on a school trip. I had spent the entire crossing leaning over the railing, and not just puking – it was the first time I lost all sight of land. The cliffs were beautiful, spectral in the glare, as we approached the coast and my classmates and I tried to shape our mouths around the loopy spelunk of ‘welcome.’ Chalk dissolves in acid, our teacher told us; monuments weep willkommen. There is something to that stretch of water between the mainland and this island that presents a challenge to our consciousness; the crossing of a border made of words when the reality of it is contact and confluence, not separation or exclusion – clouds travel, Constable and Wordsworth knew, in that they are constant; and water is constantly elsewhere, and here at the same time; much like our identity, which belongs, and never quite does, unless it comes to terms with something universal, what Auden alludes to, perhaps, as ‘a way of happening, a mouth.’

I am fond of estuaries, the land curiously going out. We share a sea, and some of us are in need of refuge, hospitality, and care. This cold morning has a brightness to it; it is full of the levity and spin of our tiny planet in a universe we know to be infinitely larger. Eventually, there is no shore left; it is just us, and the waves, and beyond that, the inhospitable dark. My friend who has suffered so much could easily give in and return the hate they give. But he chooses love, and that in itself is hope – there is always a choice, and as a poet, I have to defend that freedom, which allows me write these very words and tell you my heart’s thought. Feel the wind in your hair. Eat mud.